If you’re like me and feel like you’ve had to depend mostly on yourself to get things done your whole life, you’ve probably gotten really good at doing that: getting things done and not needing other people to do things for you. You are probably proud of just how efficient and effective you are. You are likely a high performer and super reliable – qualities you’re proud of because you work damn hard to make sure all the boxes are checked, not just for you, but for the people you love as well. And this is GREAT. You are awesome.
So let me ask you: What happens when your significant other (SO) frequently relies on you for things that you typically do really well for yourself, on your own? If you’re reading this, I imagine this is challenging for you. Do you ever hear yourself saying, “Gahhh why are you not capable of this?!” or “How do you survive in the world?!” or “Why am I the only one in this family who can get anything done?!” The frustration is palpable. So let’s think about it: why *are* you so good at doing all the things, and why isn’t your partner? And why is it so infuriating? If someone at work asked for help with something you’re really good at, that they aren’t, the response probably wouldn’t be the same. So what’s the deal when your S.O. asks? Why the elevated expectations and emotions?
First, let’s be clear. This is a completely common scenario, and for good reason, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Let’s just get curious, starting with this: Why are you so competent in ways your partner isn’t? In my experience, those of us who are high-performing and very independent built our life-management skills because, quite simply, we had to. For whatever reason, and likely starting at a very young age, we learned that there aren’t always people around to depend on and that if we didn’t figure out how to take care of things ourselves, they wouldn’t get taken care of.
Alternatively, you may have had caregivers who were extremely critical or held you to extremely high standards, insisting that if you didn’t do things perfectly, you didn’t try hard enough. And so being the best at everything all by yourself became your currency for earning love, attention, and approval. There are a bunch of possible reasons for how we got the way we are, but the point is, the way we are is often forged in us through actual hardship, physical or emotional. And you might say, “Aww my childhood wasn’t so bad.” And I’m not saying it was. But it’s worth considering whether or not you consistently had folks to depend on, and whether you learned that gaining their approval required constant, maximum effort. Because high-performing personalities and hyper-independence are hard-won.
But what’s life like now? Ideally, times have changed. And if not, as an adult, you have the power to cultivate a life in which you’re surrounded by dependable people who support and care for you, just as you do them. If you’re in a happy, healthy relationship, I would hope your partner is one of those people. So now, you’re either surrounded by more support than you were as a kid, or if not, you at least could be. And that is awesome, except, how do you shift? If you don’t have to do everything on your own and be “the strong one” all the time in all situations anymore, after having done that your whole life, how do you downshift your gears and take a breath, realizing that you actually don’t have to keep all the plates spinning on your own anymore, and that not being able to spin all the plates won’t actually make you any less worthy of love?
This is a crazy hard transition, and so what happens for most of us is that we stay in high-gear, kicking ass all over the place, getting all of the things done with damn-near-perfect precision, making the calls, managing the things, and just really being superheroes. And instead of calming it down and leaning into the support available from our loved ones, we expect our loved ones to step up to our level and be superheroes, too. And when they don’t, we get freaking pissed. We get critical. We get resentful. It’s a whole problem. And you know what you need? You probably think you need a butt-kicking, because of course you think that. But the reality?
You need a hug.
Expecting your S.O. to overperform the way you do, as if they grew up the way you did, and feeling angry with them for not being able to, is really a cry of grief. That’s right. GRIEF.
That little version of you, the one who had to figure everything out and get it right all the damn time, the one who is STILL striving every day to earn that stamp of approval is, saying to your S.O.:
“You, too?! You need me for everything, too? Who is ever going to take care of me?! I have had to do it all alone from day one, and I am doing that all by myself even now. I can’t do everything for you, too! And YOU should know how to do everything for yourself, too, because otherwise, it’s not fair!”
And even further, “If you don’t have to over-perform to survive, to be worthy, to be enough, then how come I have to? No. You have to, too. Get to work, ya free-loader!”
Those may not be your inner kiddo’s exact words, but you get it. And your inner child is right. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that you had to figure everything out yourself from day one. It isn’t fair that if you got things wrong, you lost love. It isn’t fair that you learned you weren’t enough and have spent every day trying to measure up ever since. You should have been able to lean on others. You needed to be able to. And you couldn’t. You deserved all the love and affection and attention and approval in the world JUST FOR BEING YOU, with all your mistakes and failures and challenges and shortcomings, and you didn’t get it. It isn’t fair. And let’s just admit it: it’s a bit terrifying to realize that people actually aren’t supposed to have it all together all the time, because it is heartbreaking to the reality that you never should have been expected to either.
You aren’t a superhero. You are a human, constantly striving to do superhero things.
What you’re learning through this is that you cannot be everything for yourself all the time and expect to have much left to give others. Of course it’s infuriating for others to depend on you for all the things you’ve had to do on your own your whole life (and still are). You’re already over-performing for you all on your own. How exhausting. How painful! How lonely.
While all the balls you are juggling seem like emergencies, more than likely, if you let a few of those fall or hand them off, everything will be just fine. Think about it. What bad would happen if that thing didn’t get done perfectly? What if the minimum effective dose of your time for some things was enough. What if someone else can take some of those things off your plate? In all these scenarios, you are safe to release. It’s okay to open up the opportunity for your S.O. to support you and free up the energy you don’t currently have (because you’re stretched thin playing ALLLLL the roles).
What if you are not only allowed to ask for help or to do things just well enough, but what if that’s actually how you are meant to live? And in doing so, suddenly, it becomes okay for others to need you. It becomes okay for them to not have all their ducks in a row. It becomes okay for them to not be competent and perfect in every life area, because it’s finally okay for you not to, too. And suddenly, when they ask you to support them in the areas they need, areas you’ve probably already mastered, you have the capacity to do so without resentment. When you free them up to be the imperfect, disorganized, occasionally inadequate humans they are, you are suddenly both allowed to be those things, and STILL be loved, still be enough, still be worthy. Once you get this kind of grace flowing through your relationship, all the doors to deeper connection and intimacy bust wide open.
Let me reiterate: People are supposed to need other people.
You are supposed to need other people. And even though other people have let you down, your history of aloneness and hyper-independent survival mode is perpetuated by the ongoing belief that we should all be running around capable of doing all the things ourselves; and the belief that if anyone can’t do what you can do with one hand tied behind their back, there must be something wrong with them.
So today, the invitation is to release yourself from survival mode and the expectation that you shouldn’t need anyone else to help you, show you, teach you, support you, know more than you. So that you can release your S.O. from the same. Give your inner child what s/he needs: relief from that ever-present loneliness and the right to not only fall into the arms of another, but for them to fall into yours, without judgment. That hurt little one is you, in an older body, and it’s time to say to yourself, “Hey! You are enough. You’re doing great. It’s time to let some of this go and stop trying to achieve your way into worthiness. You’re worthy as you are.”
When Little You starts to heal, Grown-up You stops expecting everyone else to behave the way wounded Little You needed to behave to survive.
Imagine for a moment that, as a child, you didn’t have to depend only on yourself to figure things out. Imagine it were safe to not know a thing, to do it wrong, to be the scared, goofy, confused little kid you were, and to have trustworthy, dependable caregivers who loved you patiently and unconditionally as you struggled, with a smile and a pat on the back. Imagine if it were safe to struggle. You can’t go back in time, but you have the opportunity, today, to give yourself that gift. And if you do, you will naturally, with time, begin to give that gracious gift to your S.O. as well.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.